Mata Hari

Portrait of Mata Hari. Source:

Margaretha Geertruida ZELLE was the only daughter of Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. Her father, a rich milliner, lavished her with attention. The little girl, often mistaken for a Eurasian because of her dark skin, showed an early flair for invention and drama. The family "cocoon" was shattered in January 1889 when the Zelle Company went bankrupt. The family moved, Adam Zelle abandoned his children, and the couple separated on the 4th September 1890. The death of Mrs Zelle eight months later dispersed the siblings.

In November 1892, Margaretha began primary teacher training college in Leiden, where she was dismissed for having an affair with the headmaster. She then went to live with an uncle in La Hague. In March 1895 she replied to a classified advert posted by the captain of a royal army warship in the Indies: "Officer recently returned from the Indies seeks affectionate young woman for marriage". The officer, nineteen years her senior, was called Rodolphe MacLeod, alias John. He represented the father figure she had never had. They were married on the 11th July. On the 30th January 1897, whilst living in Amsterdam with one of Rodolphe's sisters, the pair had their first child, Norman John.
At the beginning of May 1897, the family left for Toempong (west of Java), in the Dutch Indies, where officer MacLeod was to take up his posting. The couple had a daughter there; Jeanne Louise nicknamed "Non". The young woman took an interest in Balinese dancing, and adopted the pseudonym of Mata Hari "Eye of the day" (name for the sun in Indonesian). Married life abroad was however proving difficult. Margaretha, intoxicated by the colonies, abandoned her family. The couple separated on grounds of adultery. Their son then died of poisoning. In 1900, after twenty-eight years of service, Rodolphe MacLeod left the army. In March 1902, the MacLeods returned to the Netherlands, and divorced five months later. In spite of the judgement made, Rodolphe refused his monthly visiting rights, and stole the child away from her mother's care.

In 1903, aged 26, the Dutchwoman went to Paris. Finding herself without employment, she returned to the Netherlands for a few months before embarking upon a career as an exotic dancer in the eternal city, in the character of a Javanese princess named "Lady MacLeod". She started working in the drawing room of Madame Kiréesky, then went on to other private drawing rooms, working under her Javanese pseudonym of "Mata Hari", finally finding herself invited by Mr Guimet, owner of a private theatre. Her performance on the evening of the 13th May 1905 as a totally naked Indian princess marked the start of her society life. She performed a variation of a "Hindu dance" in honour of the goddess Shiva, together with other artists. The show was a success and the actors were invited to perform before the great figures of the era: on the 18th August 1905 at the Paris Olympia, in January 1906 in Madrid; in Monte Carlo she played in the Roi de Lahore by Jules Massenet (1842-1912); in Berlin, the Hague, Vienna and Cairo. Her artistic talents were nevertheless fairly limited. Mata Hari was very probably the inventor of a type of choreography much-loved in the cabarets and by those for whom exoticism is synonymous with lasciviousness, and was more renowned for this than for performing Indian dances. Interviewed by journalists, the performer gave way to the actress: she liked to introduce her mother as an Indian princess, raised her father to the status of baron and added "I was born in Java, in the midst of tropical vegetation, and, since my earliest childhood, priests initiated me into the deep significance of these dances which form a real religion." This did not prevent her in 1907 however, from being outshined by other exotic dancers such as Colette, who was herself to be replaced by the Russian ballets soon after. Mata Hari, seeing her fame diminish, ended up moving in society circles, collecting benefactors, always on the lookout for new lovers.

When war was declared, Margaretha Zelle lived in Berlin with a former lover, Alfred Kiepert, a hussar, anxious to perform in the Metropolis. Her language skills made it possible for her to return to the Netherlands then to set up in Paris where, living at the Grand Hotel, she continued to make a living from her looks and charms. At the beginning of 1916, during a trip to Germany (Cologne, Frankfurt), Mata Hari, in debt due to her lavish lifestyle, was contacted by Cramer, a German Consul in The Hague. He offered to settle her debts, to give her 20,000 crowns in exchange for information on France. This is how she came to be agent H 21. Back in Paris in July, she entered into contacts with allied officers, and fell in love with a Russian army captain. When he was wounded, he was sent for treatment in Vittel. Mata Hari then began scheming to get the authorisation to go to his bedside. She entered into a relationship with captain Ladoux, officer of the French counterespionage. In exchange for this favour and a million francs (never paid), he offered her a mission to spy on the Kronprinz, one of her ex-lovers. The Frenchman distrusted her however: he had her followed throughout the whole mission. Her work complete, Mata Hari was then sent to Belgium in August, followed in November by Spain, the centre of the secret war, with no money or detailed instructions. The British secret services, thinking that they were dealing with the spy Klara Benedix, placed her under arrest at the port of Falmouth as she was travelling back to Holland in order to reach Germany, before subjecting her to hard interrogation. Captain Ladoux telegraphed his counterpart, Sir Basil Thomson, in order to clear up the confusion about her identity.

Once freed, Mata Hari returned to Madrid on 11th December 1916 for three weeks. She made contact with the military attaché of the German embassy, Arnold von Kalle, and provided the French services with a list of agents, a procedure written in invisible ink and a the name of a place of arrival in Morocco - this "harvest" of information was in fact to benefit the head of communications, Denvignes, who took credit for the work. In the meantime the British secret services intercepted and deciphered the telegrams sent by the German attaché in Berlin. They had mixed up the identities of agent H 21 and Mata Hari (due to a lack of vigilance on the part of the lieutenant von Kroon), thus supposedly proving that she was a double agent. One of the messages, concerning the accession to the Greek throne of the heir prince Georges mentions that "agent H-21 proved very useful". Another version of events claims that von Kalle, suspicious of Mata Hari, himself prompted the inquiry by sending these radio messages to Berlin in a code that could easily be deciphered by the Allies. Mata Hari returned to her lover in Paris in January 1917, in the hope of a reward and a new mission... She was arrested on 13th February at the hôtel Élysée Palace by Captain Bouchardon, the examining magistrate, "accused of spying and complicit intelligence with the enemy, in the aim of furthering their enterprises".

She was held in the women's prison of Saint-Lazarre. For four months, subjected to fourteen interrogations (from 23rd February to 21st June), Bouchardon ended up by concluding that she was H 21 - she denied having had relations with the head of German intelligence in Madrid, even if she admitted having received money from the German consul Cramer in the context of his society life. Carried away by his overriding chauvinism, Bouchardon did not take the services rendered by the accused into account - indeed, he disbelieved her: "feline, slippery, artificial, without scruples, without pity, she was a born spy", he wrote in his memoirs. The hearing, held in camera, started on the 24th July 1917, in front of the 3rd military council at the High Court in Paris. The Court was presided over by the lieutenant-colonel Somprou and the government commissioner, lieutenant Mornet - who was to declare several years after the hearing: "it was no big deal." Her lawyer, Master Clunet, a former lover, was a reputed expert in international law.

Besides Jules Cambon, Vadim Maslov, and the diplomat Henri de Marguérie who swore never having broached the subject of the military in her presence and guaranteed her integrity, none of her former lovers agreed to stand witness in her favour. The trial, as the interrogation, made no distinction between her society life, judged to be immoral, her suspicious cosmopolitanism, and her intelligence activities. They merely reflected French and Allied public opinion which was calling for guilty verdicts for all the deaths, mutinees and other war crimes. Meanwhile the press, maintaining the idea of an enemy plot in their reports, only served to further fuel the witchhunt for collaborators from both sides. Margueritte Francillard was the first French national shot for spying on the 10th January 1917. Mlle Dufays met the same end in March of the same year. The Mata Hari affair, in part due to the character's ambiguous behaviour, was just one more occasion to strengthen national unity - the British archives even show that she never gave the Germans any crucial information (Léon Schirmann).

At the end of the trial, the court found her guilty of collaboration with the enemy and sentenced her to death by firing squad - other women were also tried and sentenced for spying during the last years of the war: Augustine Josèphe, Susy Depsy, Régina Diano, etc. On the morning of the 15th October 1917, at 6h15, her pardon having been rejected by the President of the Republic Raymond Poincaré, Margaretha Zelle, who had recently converted to Protestantism, was driven by armoured car to the Vincennes firing range where soldiers and onlookers awaited her. Mata Hari refused to have her eyes covered. A cavalry officer delivered eleven bullets, the final one fatal: "her death reasserted the authority of a country bled dry by the bloody war of which the futility was becoming apparent" (J.M. Loubier). Her unclaimed body was donated to the medico-legal institute for research.